After Fleeing Ukraine, a Tattoo Artist Settles Into Life in Brooklyn

After Fleeing Ukraine, a Tattoo Artist Settles Into Life in Brooklyn

It was war that drove Alona Hamova from her home, but, in a way, she always knew she was destined to leave. “I felt like I didn’t fit there,” she said.

She grew up in Novovasylivka, a small Ukrainian village just a few miles from the port city of Berdyansk, in the east of the country. For Ms. Hamova, it was a place of limited opportunity and imagination, a place that thwarted her ambition. “I lived in this village where everyone told me, ‘Oh you have to be this way only,’” she said. “I would see people on TV, living their best lives, and I would think, I want that too. I am motivated by my own desires. Not having something I want hurts.”

She attended Kyiv National Linguistic University and graduated with a degree in translation studies and competency in four languages, but she lacked certainty about the work she wanted to do, and where, exactly, she wanted to live.

When she was 22, she got a tattoo of a whale on her stomach and struck up a conversation with the artist. The artist became her mentor, and Ms. Hamova was learning the fundamentals of tattooing. “I liked drawing, since childhood,” she said. “But I always thought I was not creative enough. It was a lack of confidence.”

She tinkered with it for a few years, looking for her own style. She acquired six more tattoos: a lotus on her back, a mandala on her thigh, a small branch near her collarbone, a beetle and flowers on her legs, and daffodils near her kneecap, which is her favorite as it has, over time, become a personal symbol of self-acceptance.

It was a difficult breakup at age 25 that helped her gain clarity. “This is when I discovered my style,” she said, “because I was able to accept myself and love myself and embrace who I am.”

Soon, her high-contrast floral tattoos executed in fine lines became popular. She was gaining clients and confidence. Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Ms. Hamova said she had to leave: “There was nothing else I could do.”

That was early 2022, when her artistry was also picking up followers on social media. A tattoo studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, offered her a spot as a guest artist. But she wasn’t quite ready to move to the United States, so she spent nearly a year traveling through Europe, working as a guest artist at studios in places like Munich and Vienna. “Work helped me deal with everything,” she said. “And I had therapy, which helped a lot to deal with the emotions.”

She finally felt ready to take the Brooklyn offer. “I didn’t know anything about New York,” she said. “I thought it is probably the place for everyone since it’s so multicultural.”

$4,514 | Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Occupation: Tattoo artist

On big cities: When Ms. Hamova first arrived in Kyiv as a university student, she knew right away that she preferred life in a big city. “It feels more natural,” she said. “I feel like in Kyiv I was starting to learn who I was and now in New York, I’m getting the results. I believe that everyone knows what they want in life — it takes only courage to actually hear that inner voice and follow.”

On home furnishings: Before moving to New York, Ms. Hamova had lived in several apartments in different cities but they had all come furnished. Her Brooklyn apartment presented her first opportunity to decide what her home would look like.

Ms. Hamova arrived in New York in February of 2023 and was granted a two-year visa under the government’s “Uniting for Ukraine” program. “You make a decision to go somewhere, you book a flight, you book a place to stay and that’s it. You’ll figure it out when you get there,” she said. “I prepared myself financially because I heard everyone say it was very expensive.”

Court Square, a hotel in Queens, was her home for a month. She spent most of her time looking for an apartment in Williamsburg, where she knew she’d be working. She skipped online searches and instead just walked the streets, looking for posted signs for available apartments.

The feel of Williamsburg reminded her of Kyiv, but she was having a hard time finding the right place.

She sensed she needed to slow down so she rented another apartment for a month through Airbnb. “I was going through some mental challenges,” she said, “just because I didn’t know I was so traumatized by the situation in Ukraine. And I realized when I looked at each apartment, I compared it to what I had in Kyiv. I finally figured out the situation with my therapist, who I’ve been working with online now for more than two years. I was able to let it go and be ready to move into something new.”

With extra time and a fresh perspective, she found a one-bedroom apartment at 325 Kent, a development built by Two Trees Management in 2017 along the East River. Now she has floor-to-ceiling windows framing her skyline views and, in a framed poster above her sofa, the motto for her life: “The World Is Yours.”

Most important, she lives by water. “Any time I’m having challenges in my life and need to get my peace back, I just go to Domino Park and sit and stare at the water and the view of Manhattan,” she said. “My peace comes with staring at water so it’s a big gift to be able to come right outside and do that.”

Anchored to her hideaway on Kent Avenue, she spent much of 2023 working out the details of her new life. The initial studio where she was hired didn’t work out, and she had trouble making friends. “I am quite an introverted person,” she said. She found work at another studio called Atelier Eva — a better fit, just a five-minute walk from her apartment. She found her favorite pizza spot and a friend, also from Ukraine, to meet there regularly. “We have our ‘Pizza Joe moments,’” she said, at the Brooklyn-famous Joe’s Pizza.

New York is now giving Ms. Hamova the freedom she sought when she left Novovasylivka, and the safety she needed when she fled Kyiv. “Of course, it’s very stressful to move to another country,” she said, “but New York did not scare me. I knew it was big enough. There must be a place for me.”

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