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Burb’s Eye View: Body painting her way to success

Gwen Davis’ business has struck a niche market of baby bumps and bar mitzvahs.

Her Burbank studio, a former Lockheed office building on Cedar Avenue near San Fernando, is adjacent to former airplane hangars and warehouses now used by Western Studios. On any given day, a television show’s set may be constructed or torn down nearby, yet in the quiet of Davis’ offices, a more delicate trade is taking place.

Here, a model is laying stock still as Davis paints tiger stripes all over her. On another day, an actor may receive a temporary tattoo for a film role. And helming the art at Airbrush Hollywood is Davis, a single mom and lifetime makeup master who says she’s finally learned one of the most valuable lessons an artist can learn: how to run her art as a business.

“The challenges I’ve given myself have been like moving mountains,” she said. “Just because I work for myself doesn’t mean I can take a day off.”


The L.A. native began Airbrush Hollywood a year ago. She would travel from home to home with her airbrush kit, painting designs using custom-built stencils. Occasionally she’d rely on the more traditional touch of a paintbrush. Both skills she learned as a teen — her boyfriend’s mother worked in Hollywood as a makeup artist.

Davis further honed her paint skills airbrushing T-shirts at Universal Studios, and later car hoods.

“I’ll airbrush anything if it will stick,” she said.

In the following years, she moved on to a custom jewelry line, pairing vintage pieces from different eras to create new looks. The eco-friendly line, Verde Rocks, used only materials that already were in use — a green philosophy that “went a long way with my values,” Davis said.


When her son, Kai, was born, she moved to Portland to give him a greener place to grow up. For Davis, that also meant getting “a regular job.”

Then, a photographer who knew about Davis’ paint work asked her to create a design on a pregnant woman’s stomach for a photo shoot. You can take the body painter out of L.A., but you can’t take the L.A. out of the body painter.

Davis and Kai, now 8, moved back to the place where body art can mean big business.

“I guess the grass wasn’t as green…” she said.

In October, she opened a tanning studio called the Look Factory and — a combination business site and fashion blog — out of her office-turned-studio. Her plan is to eventually hire some help for the tanning business while airbrushing at parties on the weekends.

It’s already filled her calendar most weekends since last fall, especially at bar and bat mitzvahs, Davis said, because permanent tattoos are taboo in the Jewish faith.

Businesses are also getting in on the action — HP contracted Davis to airbrush the company’s logo on people at a trade show booth.

As Davis walks around the studio that is her neighborhood (she and her son live up the street), she is encouraged by the hum of production vehicles rumbling along the lot. When they’re idle, it means less work for many Burbank tradespeople.


She has her eye on the building next door. It’s labeled No. 5, and is about five times as big as the Look Factory’s current space. So far hers is a business of one, but Davis’ expansion plans leave no room for small dreams.

“I think I’d rather risk it all and bring about jobs for similar types of people,” she said.

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he’s not tattooing “MOM” on his arm, he can be reached at and on Twitter @818NewGuy.