Local artist and University alumna Leslie Kuluva, known on social media as “Leslie Kay” has worked in various media throughout her career, but she is best known for her screen printing: LFK.
Although the meaning of acronym “LFK” can’t be explicitly published in this paper, it’s Lawrence’s most beloved slang term. LFK shirts and stickers are found on campus and in the greater Lawrence area almost as often as University merchandise.
Kuluva moved to Lawrence from Kansas City in 1999 to study art and design at the University, where she gradually developed her artistry. She was working toward a degree in textiles until she discovered printmaking and “just fell in love with it,” she said.
Kuluva would steal away to the textiles department at night to make t-shirts for her friends. Much of her work was done in her living room where she’d make prints on her coffee table and dry shirts on her couch.
“All the grad students kept telling me I was a printmaker, and I had no idea what that even meant,” she said. "Finally I took a printmaking class and it was like the exact opposite."
She added: "Textiles [class] was upstairs. It was basically all female…[printmaking] was downstairs and all dudes, and they were all making, like, penis prints. And I was like ‘I think I’m a printmaker!’”
Kuluva created LFK when she unwittingly made the first LFK spray paint stencil in 2001.
The original LFK design was spurred by a road trip. Kuluva went on several road trips around the Midwest, usually traveling with friends to see a concert, and she’d make a new spray paint stencil for every trip to tag the destination. They usually said something like “Lawrence Pride” or “14th Street Pride.” LFK was inspired by the reaction Kuluva got when she told people where she was from.
“I would travel and people would say ‘Where are you from?’ and I’d say “I’m from Kansas’ and they’d be like ‘Oh… Kansas’ and then I would say ‘Lawrence, Kansas’ and their face would change,” she said. “They’d be like ‘Oh, Lawrence, Kansas! That place is really cool’…it’s just funny how Lawrence was viewed. So I made a [LFK] stencil.”
The design took off. The first LFK shirts were made by Kuluva and a friend using the original stencil. When people wore them in other places, the shirts were recognized and Kuluva’s name would come up.
“People would meet each other in other states because of it, because one of them would be wearing the shirt and there’s only one place you can get it,” she said. “So they’d have this weird six degrees of separation thing.”
It wasn’t long before the design started to be copied. As LFK increased in popularity, Kuluva began to see bootlegged merchandise around the city. Clothing store ACME in downtown Lawrence is one of the most popular places to buy LFK shirts and stickers. ACME's LFK merchandise is sold without Kuluva's involvement, although the design is different than the original according to assistant manager Katlyn Conroy.
"Here at ACME we try to definitely tell people 'That's actually a local artist's design," Conroy said. "If you want [Kuluva's] design you have to go [to a different store]."
Kuluva works with art gallery Wonder Fair and retail store Third Planet, but other business that sell LFK merchandise are doing so without her permission, though she admits that the “ripping off” of LFK is likely due to ignorance rather than intent to steal.
“They don’t know where it came from,” she said.
Last year Kuluva had LFK trademarked, but she isn’t planning on taking legal action.
“At least I feel like I have a little bit of power if I want to use it,” she said. “I don’t know yet. I don’t want to be a brat about it, but if you’re making t-shirts or stickers with it, that’s kind of my livelihood…I would rather be the place you can buy the merch because I came up with it. I like seeing it around besides that.”
Today Kuluva owns and operates print shop LFK Press in East Lawrence with fellow artist Jeff Eaton. The shop allows Kuluva to do “a little bit of everything.” She’s able to continue creating original material while also filling orders for local bands and businesses. Warner Brothers Music is one of her biggest clients, and she was recently hired to create merchandise for country musician Dwight Yoakam. She also books bands for the Replay Lounge.
The Bourgeois Pig is also currently displaying some of Kuluva’s work in an show she titled “Lawrence Feral Kansas,” a play on LFK, for the rest of the month. It was inspired about all the things she loves about her town and what makes it “wild:” sunflower fields, camping, feral cats and lakes.
“I really love it here,” Kuluva said. “It does feel smaller and smaller all the time because I’ve been here for so long, and as I’m getting older I’m like ‘I know everybody!’, but I don’t know everybody. I still meet new people.”
Although Lawrence is her “home base” Kuluva says she has a hard time staying motivated in a small community.
“I sometimes wonder if the big city thing might be a little motivating because there’s a lot more competition and your rent's a lot higher, so you really have to kind of kick ass,” she said. “Whereas in a town like this, it’s really easy to be lazy, and I have a constant struggle to self-motivate.
She said she works to maintain her passion and keep her focus.
"You’ve got to make your own deadlines and pretend like you’re still in school a little bit…There are a lot of talented people in this town that probably have the potential to be kicking a little more ass, and I don’t want that to happen to me. So I really just try to keep busy.”
— Edited by Maddy Mikinski