BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE FALL 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
You are to be forgiven if you looked at the word “pyrography” in the title of this article and had no idea what it meant. I don’t believe I’d even seen the word until I received an email out of the blue a few months ago from a fellow in Honolulu named Dino Muradian eager to show me the mind-blowing designs he’s been making to customize ukuleles (and other instruments) through a process known as pyrography. “Pyro” is the tip-off; it’s from a Greek word for “fire, heat, high temperature,” and “graphos” is “writing,” so “writing with fire.” But we’ll let Dino explain it: “Pyrography is the art of woodburning; art done with an electric soldering iron-type tool, ‘burning’ images into the wood. I mainly work on custom musical instruments: violins, violas, cellos, double basses, guitars, banjos, mandolins and . . . ukuleles! I can burn on the top of the instrument, on the bottom, on the sides, and even the neck and/or peghead. Basically, I can cover the whole surface of an instrument if somebody wants me to.”
The 67-year-old artist took an unusual road to becoming a full-time pyrographer. Dumitru (his actual first name) Muradian was born in Romania to a half-Armenian, half-Hungarian father and a Romanian mother. He was introduced to pyrography at the age of seven by his grandfather, and it became his main hobby as his life took many interesting twists and turns. He graduated in 1977 from the Romanian Aviation Academy in Bobocu, Romania, and worked as a commercial airplane pilot until the summer of 1983 when, fed up with living under the repressive regime of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, Dino defected: “My defection was a little bit unusual because I left by plane—a small Antonov An-2 crop-duster—so after about three-and-a-half hours flying under the radar over Hungary, we were landing on the Autobahn 17, south of Vienna, Austria. I say ‘we,’ because I was bringing with me my mechanic at that time, and also his pregnant wife.” This was viewed as high treason in Ceausescu’s Romania, and Dino was sentenced to 25 years in prison, in absentia. He spent five months in a refugee camp in Austria, but managed to make it the U.S. as a political refugee in early 1984. Not too long after arriving, he landed a job in Atlanta as a draftsman for a civil engineering firm, and in 1986 he switched coasts to work for a civil engineering company in Irvine, California. In 1990 he became a dual U.S./Romanian citizen—and also kept moving west, this time to the island of Kauai, Hawaii, and another drafting job. After Hurricane Iniki tore through Kauai in 1992, Dino moved to Seattle, and then had stints living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Toronto, and, for the past two years, Honolulu.
He says he started to become more serious about his pyrography hobby in the mid-1980s, when he came up with a new pyrography tip—a type of soldering iron—that allowed him to burn more deeply into the wood and, using magnifying lenses, get into greater detail in his designs. “In 1991, living on Kauai, I had my first two pieces sold through an art gallery, and that was when I began thinking of making a living with pyrography,” he says. “That really happened in 1995, living in Seattle, and I’ve been at it full time since. About that time, just by chance, I started doing pyrography on electric and acoustic guitars, mostly commissions from various big guitar custom shops: Fender, Gibson, ESP, Vigier, Jackson-Charvel. B.B. King had one of my pyrographed Gibson guitars; James Hetfield of Metallica has two. Over time I started working on various classical instruments for a Romanian company called Gliga Violins: violins, violas, cellos. I’ve also burned on banjo resonators, mandolins, even harps. Beginning in 2016, I started doing pyro work for the KoAloha, Ana‘ole, and Pono ukulele companies here in Honolulu, and also for Kamoa Ukulele in Kauai. I have a great relationship with Alvin Okami, the founder of KoAloha Ukulele, burning his famous ‘Pineapple Sunday’ uke: a completely pyrographed pineapple-shaped uke body. Also, I’m working for a big chain of art galleries here in the islands—Martin & MacArthur—doing pyrography on mango wood platters, bowls, koa boxes, and other things. Honolulu is a place where you can sell a lot, because it is such an amazing tourist destination.”
Dino estimates that he has pyrographed around 100 ukuleles so far, each a unique creation, and probably another hundred other musical instruments. “I can work on any type of wood—hard, soft, light, or dark,” he says. “Personally, I prefer hard woods and light colors. Birch is great, as are maple, light mahogany, and light-toned koa. Beautiful koa is great to work on; also the mango wood, even though it’s kind of soft. Dried gourds are also great for pyrography: Here in the Islands they are used as percussion instruments—the famous ipu heke, used in Hawaiian hula music.” One of his interesting future commissions is a very cool uke for Victoria Vox on a myrtle body, made by Cary Kelly of Mya-Moe Ukuleles, with an image designed by Fred Stonehouse (see image just below, and video at bottom).
What, besides his obvious skill and patience for the painstaking task of creating pyrographic masterpieces, is the secret of Dino’s success? “I think I have just taken pyrography more seriously than others,” he says. “What I want to believe I do is ‘fine art’ pyrography. I don’t have any special art education, but I have always liked drawing. Being a technical draftsman, even in civil engineering, helped me—being very exact, and having an eye for proportions and details. And then, I’m kind of a perfectionist, too. That helps a lot!”
You can find many more examples of Muradian’s work at dinomuradian.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.