Hōne Te Kāuru Taiapa, also known as John Taiapa, was born at Tikitiki on 10 August 1912, one of 14 children. His parents were Tāmati Taiapa and Maraea Te Iritawa of Te Whānau-ā-Hinerupe and other closely related hapu of Ngāti Porou. John probably had no formal education. His first job seems to have been as a bush feller.
John's elder brother, Pine, had been carving from 1925, and by 1930 was recognised as the star carver at the School of Māori Arts at Rotorua. By the middle of the depression of the early 1930s John was unemployed, and joined the Rotorua carving school informally to help his brother. Later he was taken on the roll and paid a few shillings a week. There he rapidly mastered adzing and carving techniques.
A quiet, spare man, John was always eclipsed by his more ebullient and outspoken, and more famous, elder brother. Competition between the two was a constant theme of his life, yet many believed John was the better carver. Where Pine drew his patterns on the wood and then carved, John could look at a tōtara log and see in it the shape and personality of the ancestor he was carving. Except to aid his students in later life, he used no patterns, designs or drawings. Both brothers became household names among Māori.
John Taiapa worked as a trainee with Pine on the carvings for the house Te Hono ki Rarotonga at Tokomaru Bay. Between 1934 and 1937, interspersed with work on other houses, they worked on the whare rūnanga, the centennial meeting house beside the Treaty House at Waitangi. Neither Pine nor John knew much about Ngāpuhi styles of carving; they spent some time in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, practising by carving small models of northern works. While working in the Bay of Islands John met his future wife; he married Mereiro Hōri Keretene (Cherrington) on 7 May 1935 at Mōtatau. The couple were to have four daughters and three sons.
At the end of the work at Waitangi in 1937 John Taiapa considered himself a fully trained carver. He often worked with his brother on different houses around the country, but just as often he was part of a separate team. About 1937 he and his party of five or six carvers worked on the Mangahānea dining hall, near Ruatōria. He also worked on Tākitimu house, opened at Wairoa in 1938. At some stage, probably in the late 1930s during work on the house Arohanui ki te Tangata (carved for the 1940 centennial and later erected at Waiwhetū), both brothers had a carving establishment in Bowen Street, Wellington. They were often in contact with the then elderly statesman Apirana Ngata; John, rather wild in his younger days, was reprimanded by Ngata for drinking bouts. He took the reprimand well, and went on to do some of his finest carving.
In mid 1941, in spite of his growing family, John made an attempt to enlist, as had his brother Pine, but Ngata wrote telling him to wait. Ngata wanted other districts such as Hawke's Bay, Ūawa and Tokomaru to increase their recruitment before he encouraged more 'Nāti' (Ngāti Porou of Waiapu) to go to war.
Among the many buildings John Taiapa worked on was Ruakapanga at Hauiti marae; his carvings were completed in 1944. About this time the East Coast leader Materoa Reedy commissioned carvings from Pine and John for a proposed house at Waitangirua near her homestead; it was to be a memorial to her nephew, the Victoria Cross winner Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu. At the request of the people of Hiruhārama, they were instead used for the house Kapohanga, built in memory of local soldiers who had died overseas, and the Ngā Tamatoa dining hall at Hiruhārama. John Taiapa's masterpiece was said to be the house Tūkākī at Te Kaha, carved for Te Whānau-ā-Te Ehutū and opened in 1950. During the late 1940s he carved the interior of the new Hukarere chapel, designed by Apirana Ngata. Most of the work was done in Gisborne with other East Coast carvers. The tapu usually laid on the building while carving was in progress was lifted so that a team of women led by Te Riringa Ngata could work on the tukutuku panels at the same time.
In 1951 Pine Taiapa withdrew to his farm at Tikitiki. John carried on as a full-time carver, even though money was scarce and work was not always available. He filled in some of the gaps by working as a builder. Both brothers trained many other carvers. Ngata had helped carvers by tracing the genealogies of the ancestors they were to carve, but after 1950 John did this work himself. The sources he used for his inspiration were the traditional characters and forms of the past, but within those limits he interpreted the stories in his own way, and invented new ways of symbolising their events. In the house Tākipū, for example, he depicted the female ancestor Wairaka, in Ngāti Awa tradition the saviour of the Mātaatua canoe, with a miniature canoe held in her hand.
Taiapa's team of Ōhinemutu carvers moved around the country, often in buses hired for the occasion with their wives and children. They were accommodated in meeting houses, given their food, but paid very little. Later Taiapa built a house for his increasing family at Rotorua, but in the 1930s and 1940s he was seldom there. Ngata worked out a table of charges and a contract system for him in 1950 to which he adhered for the rest of his life. From the 1950s he was able to insist on hotel (and later motel) accommodation, preferable to the rigours and lack of privacy of long-term living in a meeting house.
In the 1950s Taiapa worked at Ōhinemutu on carvings for the house Tāpeka at Waihī, Tokaanu, rebuilt in 1959, and on carvings for the assembly hall of the Rotorua Boys' High School. In 1960 he worked on carvings for the Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist in Napier; that year he was appointed an MBE for his services to Māori art. He was commissioned to make carvings for the Mormon Polynesian Cultural Centre at Laie, Oahu, in Hawaii, but despite this international exposure, he himself did not value these carvings highly; they represented no ancestors, and he felt they were mere decorations. In 1966 John Taiapa was appointed the first master carver at the Rotorua Māori Arts and Crafts Institute. By this stage he was working with his apprentices in a well-equipped workshop at Whakarewarewa.
John Taiapa continued to carve in the 1970s; his last project was the Mātaatua meeting house in Rotorua. He died in Rotorua Hospital on 10 May 1979, and was buried at Ngongotahā four days later, survived by his wife and six children. In his working life he had produced fine carvings for more than 44 houses and many other buildings; with his brother Pine he had set standards and had been a leader in what for a time had seemed to be a dying art.