Growing up in Izmir, Turkey, Ekin Balcıoğlu was surrounded by hamam culture. She didn’t engage with the ritualistic act of communal bathing herself, however, until she upped sticks to the US to study fine art and visual critical studies.
“I did not get into communal bathing until I moved to New York and needed a way to warm up to survive the miserably cold winters,” Balcıoğlu tells CR. “I became a regular steam bather at the Russian Turkish Baths in the east village and it was in that bathhouse that I met some of the most interesting and inspiring people, many of whom are lifelong friends of mine.”
When Balcıoğlu moved from New York to San Francisco, she got a part-time job at Archimedes Banya to learn the healing art of platza – a Russian steam treatment performed in the sauna with a bouquet of leafy branches. Little did she know it would make such an impact that she decided to create her own indie mag, Hamam.
“The experience inspired me to do a creative project to shed light on the subcultures that permeate the bathing community – something similar to Humans of New York for bathhouse people,” says Balcıoğlu.
“As the content ideas flowed, my husband and co-founder Steve introduced me to WET Magazine – an avant garde publication founded by Leonard Koren in the late 70s. I thought a magazine would be the perfect medium to spread bathing art and culture, especially because most bathing spots don’t allow electronics. They’re a great place to read. In essence, the mission of Hamam is to turn the universe on to communal bathing.”
The first issue of the quarterly magazine launched in the midst of the pandemic last year, featuring essays, artist projects, photography stories, and interviews from contributors from all over the world.
The team behind Hamam’s attitude to bringing each issue to life is to be as free and open as possible, says Balcıoğlu. “We approach every page of Hamam with no predetermined layout and no restrictions on design.
“Just like water in a vessel, our visual identity adapts to fill the contours of a contributor’s content. Reinventing the look and feel of Hamam means our readers never know what’s on the next page, let alone in the next issue,” she adds.
The latest issue of the mag is themed around the universal concept of water, and includes everything from a deep dive into Japanese sento culture and rituals to an article about taking a shower underwater in a nuclear submarine.
As for what the future holds for Hamam, Balcıoğlu is open to keeping on publishing it as long as there is more to say about bathing and its broader mission as ‘the magazine of letting go’.
“Sometimes I think about how we can extend the idea of Hamam – an object of letting go that you can hold in your hand – to immersive experiences. As you can imagine, it’s been difficult to participate in communal bathing during the pandemic and my hope is that in some small way Hamam has brought this community a little closer together,” says Balcıoğlu.
“Ultimately, my vision for the future is to reimagine a public bath that eliminates subjugation of both people and nature in order to bridge the divisions in society and regenerate our community and biosphere.”