A Coat of Arms is like a Family Crest, although more elaborate. There is often confusion surrounding the two terms because Gaelic, or Irish, tradition allowed people to use the shield portion of their Coat of Arms as the symbol for their family. These shields, because they represented the family and “crest” was a term associated with the Coat of Arms, were dubbed Family Crests.
The shield, however, is only one part of a larger design, which includes several different elements, that makes up the Coat of Arms. Different from a Family Crest, a Coat of Arms is usually made up of a crest, helmet, shield, motto, and supporters. The Family Crest is actually the shield. In a Coat of Arms, the crest is a feature that is placed over the shield and helmut, and has nothing to do with Family Crests. The crest could be anything, like an animal head, antlers, chains, flowers, etc.
Coat of Arms is also known as Armorial Achievement, Bearings, or Arms. They originate in Europe, during times of Heraldry. Initially, they were given to knights so that they could distinguish each other during battle. When the entire army is dressed in mail and helms, it was impossible to different your own side from the enemy. To distinguish sides, the knights began to dress similarly. Today, though, Coat of Arms are much less regulated. Families originating from Europe usually have a Coat of Arms. You may find, in researching your own Arms, that there are several designs with slight variations. This is because, in times of strict regulation, an individual possessed one design. Family members would often alter the design to create their own, by changing colors, mottos, supporters, helms, or banners.
Colleges and Universities often have a Coat of Arms. States, local governments, and even nations might possess a Coat of Arms, too. Likewise, fraternities and sororities sometimes use a Coat of Arms to distinguish themselves and represent their organization. The Roman Catholic Church has numerous ones, which represent different dioceses and cathedrals. If you cannot find a familial, either maternal or paternal, perhaps an organization or foundation might suffice.
Coat of Arms tattoos are very personal. These tattoos are sometimes symbols of family pride. Not only does a Coat of Arms tattoo display the family name, or at least a variation of it, but it also shows the motto of the family. Typically, these mottos are about being strong or living righteously. Coat of Arms tattoos can display pride in the country of one's ancestors. Many times, people know the country their family emigrated from, but the original name has been changed beyond recognition or lost through the maternal side, when people married and changed names.
In America, the Great Seal of the United States is sometimes considered to be the national Coat of Arms, although this is not entirely accurate. People who wish to display their patriotism and love of their country might choose this design, rather than an antiquated Coat of Arms that represents distant family.
Coat of Arms tattoos bind people together. All people under the family name are unified through their shared heritage. If a family design does not interest you, the Coat of Arms from your alma mater, fraternity, or diocese might have more personal meaning and significance.
Just like in the time of knights, a Coat of Arms helps show which people belong to which groups. A Coat of Arms tattoo shows the strength and unity of the group, whether it is a family or not. Tattoos like this portray personal pride and honor, which is derived from membership within this group. It is important to be connected to others and a tattoo of this connection makes the bond permanent – it becomes a constant reminder.
Likewise, people will sometimes design their own Coat of Arms as a personal representation of who they are and what they stand for. They choose imagery that illustrates their interests, habits, beliefs, or occupation. These individualized designs make fantastic tattoos, because tattoos are frequently used to display these qualities. A personalized Coat of Arms might also be a combination of the Coat of Arms of two families, like the mother and father. These tattoos combine two different aspects of pride, creating a unique and cohesive design.