Photography book showcases ’90s skateboarding culture in Visalia

Nik Freitas’ book Tule Fog showcases Visalia’s impact on ’90s skateboarding culture

VISALIA – There were no skateparks in Visalia when Nik Freitas was growing up. It was the ’80s and ’90s, before the age of Instagram skate edits or Olympic skateboarding, and the city’s skating population numbered at about 20. 

“I was the only skateboarder in my graduating high school class,” Freitas said. “It was pretty dead when I started. Skateboarding was not big at all.”

Yet the scene in Visalia was still a vibrant one, churning out a number of prominent pro skaters by the mid-90’s and jump-starting Freitas’ early career in skate photography. It was photos from this era that inspired him to release his book Tule Fog, a collection of photographs from the early days of Visalia’s skateboarding culture. 

The photos in Tule Fog date from 1992-2004, during a time when Freitas would spend his days shooting pictures of his friends as they skated around town. Providence Skatepark hadn’t been built yet, and no one had ramps, so they’d take to the streets of downtown or to the campuses of local schools like Redwood and Mt. Whitney.

“It was the best time. Everyone knew everyone,” Freitas said. “We all graduated high school, moved into a house with a couple of my friends and just hung out and skated. We all had jobs, and I just shot photos. We were a really close group of people.” 

Freitas took an interest in photography while attending Golden West High School, where his position on the school’s newspaper granted him access to black and white film and use of the darkroom. He’d shoot his friends skateboarding on weekends, then come back to school to process the photos. At first he only did this to hand out the photos to his friends – “Everyone was so stoked, and that’s what it was all about” –  but soon he was submitting to skateboarding magazines like Transworld and Thrasher’s Photograffiti section. 

“I would walk home from school and go to the mailbox every day for months, just hoping,” he said. “Then I got an envelope from Transworld, and it was all my photos back. They got rejected, all of them. I was super bummed. But I was like, you know, I gotta keep trying.”

A few months later, he overheard in class that a local skater was featured in a recent issue of Thrasher. 

“I skipped class and went to the mall, to the skate shop, and there was my photo in Photograffiti,” he said. It was 1984, and his career in skateboard photography had just begun. 

Freitas submitted to Thrasher every month after that. Magazines acted as agglomerations of pop culture at the time, and things were no different when it came to skateboarding. 

“It was all magazines. You went down to a grocery story and it was just magazines everywhere,” Freitas said. “There was no internet. So if you got a picture in a magazine, it was out for a month. So for a whole month you were just stoked. It kept you going.”

His photos featured his friends, several of whom – particularly Tom Knox, Karma Tsocheff, Jesse Paez and Richard Paez – soon became professional skateboarders known for trailblazing parts of early skating culture. 

“Tom Knox was the most influential dude from street skating for a couple years,” Freitas said. “He put Visalia on the map. There’s so much history in Visalia, it’s crazy. You could make a movie out of it.”

By 1999, Freitas’ photos had made the cover of Thrasher, and the magazine hired him as a staff photographer. He began traveling with different skateboard companies, interviewing skaters and shooting advertisements. In 2001, he decided to pursue a career in music full-time. He’s released nine albums since then, and currently makes music for TV shows, commercials and movies out of his home studio in Los Angeles. But he never forgot his days shooting photos of his friends shredding it up around Visalia. 

“I had the photos for 20 years, sitting in these boxes. I finally was just like, I have to do something with these,” Freitas said. 

Shaken by the 2019 death of Jake Phelps, Thrasher’s editor in chief of 27 years, Freitas began revisiting his photos from the 90’s and early 2000’s.

“It really hit me hard. He’s just had a huge impact on skateboarding. I just felt like I needed to do something,” he said. 

He then spent three months going through every single photo, slide and black and white negative from those boxes. After scanning everything, he decided the best thing to do with his little slice of history was to turn it into a book. Tule Fog was born. 

More than a collection of photos, the book acts as a testament to a slice of Visalia’s past that many aren’t aware of, and the people who made it all happen. 

“This book isn’t for me, it’s for them. It’s a documentation of a really interesting, special group of people,” Freitas said. “That’s what the book’s really about – growing up in Visalia in the ’90s. You just had to make your own happiness.”

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