TAMPA, Fla. — "I used to get banned from a number of the bars on the Beach, but now I’ve started to really mellow out,” Michael Mancini declares as we drive north on the Florida Turnpike.
"Without skateboarding, I would probably have gone down the wrong path, like many of my friends who ended up in prison, on drugs, or dead,” he adds calmly, flipping through songs on his iPod. "And the irony of it is that people’s perception of skateboarders is that they’re the delinquents, when it’s really skateboarding that’s keeping us out of trouble."
It’s 11:30 a.m. and pouring rain. After hours of working hard, the windshield wipers of the car can barely keep up with the deluge from above. I expect them to quit anytime. Barely anybody is on the road (smart) and we are surrounded by flat plains dotted with cattle huddling together rather uselessly for protection against the weather. At this point, we’re somewhere in between Miami and Tampa, and two and a half hours into the road trip. Mancini is behind the wheel, while his girlfriend of more than three years rides shotgun, and me, the plus one with a press pass, in the back seat.
The destination is Muvico Theatre in the Ybor City section of Tampa for the Hollywood-esque premiere of “The Dango is Dead,” a skate video that Mancini has been working feverishly on for the past year. As is the case with most skate videos, the filming required him to travel to different cities — the more gritty and urban, the better — to get good footage highlighting three generations of highly respected skaters, from teenagers to some in their late thirties.
"The old school generation, like me, focus more on refined skating and clean lines while the younger skaters are mainly doing things like wild stunts and maneuvers," explains Mancini, 34. "Also, you can see the difference between the two styles. Whereas the old school skaters have been doing this for 15, 20 years, it becomes more natural with the younger kids. The footage you see in the video, it’s usually the first time that they landed that trick. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, they’re doing really, really hard tricks. But style wise, it’s different."
Along with showcasing these athletes’ ability and distinct style, the movie also serves as another purpose: In this particular skate video, “The Dango” dies.
“Dango” is Mancini’s nickname among the skateboarding community. But, as much notoriety as the name gets, it’s something he’s ready to bury and start fresh.
"Now I’m â€˜The Kleetcha’. It’s a spin on â€˜The Creature.’ I have my own language where I tend to use a lot of â€˜l’s." Mancini laughs. "I have an infatuation with skeletons, but if anybody calls me â€˜The Dango,’ I’m going to correct them. It’s â€˜The Kleetch’ for short."
So, in short, “The Dango” must die for a “Kleetcha” to be born.
Mancini said he first got into skateboarding at the age of 12, when a kid skated in front of his house on the street in Oviedo, Orlando, where he grew up. Mancini asked the youngster — who’s now one of his closest friends and is thanked in the credits of “The Dango is Dead” — where he could get one of those things. The following Christmas, his first skateboard awaited him. He has not stopped skateboarding since and gained recognition by word of mouth, mostly through his participation in competitions and posting skate videos on YouTube. Some skaters think posting videos on YouTube is controversial, but doing so has become a launching pad that has helped the underground skating community get noticed. The counter argument is that it takes away from the hard work of people behind the scene who video tape the skaters, when the clips become public online for free. Mancini doesn’t receive any royalties whatsoever from his videos.
"Skating is an outlet for me, not a sport,” says Mancini, who at a rest stop took note of some places — a ledge, some stairs — that would be perfect for tricks. “I don’t look at it like a sport, but more of an art form. To let out my anger or how I’m feeling. We took a board and a ledge and made a video from it. I just love to skate and see the end product. From nothing into something."
“The Dango Is Dead” is the fifth installment of Mancini’s DVD career, one that spans well over a decade. It’s being sold as a box set come this winter, along with his other four other videos: “Volume” (2002); “The Dango” (2004); “The Good Life” (2006) and “Last of the Mohicans” (2008). They’re being sold through The Westside Skate Shop (www.westsideskateshop.com and www.theoriesofatlantis.com), a well-respected store with headquarters on the outskirts of Tampa. It was John Montesi, the shop’s founder and a major player in the Florida underground skateboarding scene, who came up with the title â€˜The Dango Is Dead,’ influenced by the hip-hop album “De La Soul is Dead.”
Mancini is no stranger to the underground skating community. He, along with many other skaters, prides himself on being “underground” or, better yet, the “underdogs.” With this video, Mancini also hopes to get skateboarding back to its roots.
"Ninety-five percent of skateboarding is bullshit to me. And you can quote me on that,” says Mancini, laughing, but with a stern tone. "I’m over the whole blown out, Mountain Dew, helmet, elbow pads … How hip hop was great in the 90’s, is how I feel skateboarding use to be back then. Nowadays with hip-hop and skateboarding, people unfortunately don’t pay attention to the skill or style. Anybody can land a trick, it’s just how you put your own personal flavor or spin on it."
For Mancini and a number of other skaters, there is a sense of pride, bordering on nobility, when it comes to skating strictly for the love of it and not for potential business opportunity and ventures that could make skating less authentic by making money off it.
But, strangely enough, as much as Mancini the obscure underdogs of the American skating community, he is anything but that in Japan. He’s very well-known there, he jokes, since “Dango,” means “sticky rice balls” in Japanese. In turn, the Japanese skateboarding community has embraced him with open arms. As Mancini says with a smile, "Whatever we love, the Japanese love a hundred times more."