TBILISI -- "Yeah we do have one, but look how wonky it is. You can probably fix it with Photoshop. If it was lit up, that would be cool," says 13-year-old Nika, as he skateboards in front of the big blue building at the very last bus stop.
Nika is talking about the cross on top of the building, which does lean a little bit to one side. You could mistake it for a TV antenna. When I ask the children who put it there, they just say the name "Irakli."
I am on the outskirts of Tbilisi trying to photograph the crosses that sit atop some of the Georgian capital's Soviet-era apartment buildings. Some of these metal constructions light up at night; others have small religious icons placed underneath. Many of them are the so-called St. Nino's crosses, a traditional Georgian variation where the horizontal arms droop down diagonally. Often known as grapevine crosses, legend has it that Georgia's first missionary made a cross with a grapevine, binding it together with her own hair.
I find the six-story building in Tbilisi's Zgvisubani district, via the @jvrebi (Georgian for crosses) Instagram account that, as the name suggests, devotes itself solely to crosses. But not crosses in churches, but the crosses found everywhere else.
The building the children are talking about -- the big blue building -- definitely wasn't built for living. The long, dusty corridors with small rooms on both sides were meant for officialdom.
"Chairman of the Board of the Regional Union of War, Labor, and Military Veterans," says a sign on one locked door. On the first floor, there is a working revenue services office, but the rest of the building is being used as housing for internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia, and others who are receiving social benefits from the state.
IDPs from Abkhazia, a breakaway Georgian region on the Black Sea coast, have been living in state-owned buildings across Georgia since the 1992 conflict forced them out. Often living in basic, broken-down accommodation, they have repeatedly protested their living conditions, with many families still waiting for new apartments or for the right to privatize their homes.
There are no complaints from the children here, though. For them, the six-story-building is a giant playground, and when I ask if I can speak to an adult, a superior, they say there is no one above them. One boy sticks out his tongue.
Higher up, in a corridor on the sixth floor, there are some religious icons in the corner. "God Give Us Grace" is painted above in large green letters. A door opens and a teenager in a tracksuit comes out smoking. Written on the opposite wall is: "Do not judge others and you will not be judged."
"I wrote that," the boy says.
His name is Beka and he tells me he doesn't go to school, which is legally possible in Georgia after the age of 16. Instead, Beka says, he wants to either learn a trade or join the military. Among the children, Beka is definitely one of the leaders, so it is him who takes me up to the roof, where I finally hear more about the mysterious Irakli.
Irakli is also an IDP from Abkhazia, but he doesn't live here anymore. According to Beka, sometimes he's in a monastery, sometimes elsewhere. No one really knows for sure. Irakli wanted his neighbors to follow a religious path and baptized some of the building's children, including Beka.
It was Irakli who put up the cross and brought priests to have the entire building consecrated. Consecration is common in Georgia. Priests can consecrate nearly every object -- typically, an apartment or a car -- by performing a special ritual. Since Irakli moved away, it's one of the neighbors who does the duty of lighting the candle in front of the picture of St. George.
"To consecrate a house doesn't just mean to protect it from, say, lightning or a fire," explains Aleksandre Galdava, a Georgian Orthodox priest. "People approach it with magic formulas and think that with this ritual they'll be protected from harm…. Consecrating my home means that I will shelter more people, that I will feed the hungry there, that I'll put [the house] in God's service."
"The cross on the top is of little importance if it doesn't carry the idea that people inside it are respectful of each other, resolve conflicts peacefully, and take care of common areas," the priest adds.
Visiting different apartment buildings across Tbilisi, no one is exactly sure how the cross tradition began. But you do hear the same story over and over again: There was a particularly religious neighbor who, one day, just decided to go for it and put up the cross.
A nine-story building in the Temqa area of Tbilisi boasts seven crosses -- six to mark each entrance and a large one in the middle. It was Zura, a former building supervisor, who erected crosses on the building around 2007. All the crosses were illuminated at night, using communal electricity that all the residents paid for. Now only the central cross shines at night, powered directly from one resident's apartment. There is still, I hear, a 700 lari ($237) electricity debt from the days when all the crosses were lit up.
The current building supervisor, Lali Kveseladze, says that it's hard enough to collect money for the building's more substantial needs, let alone lighting up the crosses at night. Ten or 15 years ago, Kveseladze says, everyone in the building knew each other, but now many people have left and the sense of community has gone.
My guide to see the seven crosses was one of the building's residents, a young man called Meko. He was just a boy, he says, when all the neighbors gathered to lift the crosses up onto the rooftops with ropes.
"Everyone around here knows our building, and it's easy to explain to the cab driver where to go. And it's beautiful," he says proudly.
The fact that the nearly 4-meter-tall cross is attached to the building with just a few bolts doesn't seem to bother him. After all, he says, it's stayed on for all these years, right?
The residents of this building say there was never a collective decision, no signatures gathered, before the crosses went up.
"The chairman just did it out of his own pocket," they say, adding that signatures are required only when it's financed by the City Hall.
The Tbilisi Architecture Service, which regulates such things, tells RFE/RL that for rooftop changes a resident has to apply with detailed plans of the future construction. If the roof is a common area of the building, which it usually is, residents have to collect signatures from their neighbors -- and without this step, the construction is illegal.
Another body, the Municipal Inspectorate of Tbilisi City Hall, tells RFE/RL that "it's impossible to monitor thousands of buildings" for safety checks. According to the office, rooftops and yards will only be checked if there is an official complaint. There haven't been any complaints about the crosses so far, they say.
Not all of Tbilisi's residents are so welcoming. In the Gldani district, a cross on top of a 16-story building overlooks the entire neighborhood. A lone bush, swaying in the wind, has grown next to it.
When I knock, a building supervisor says she knows nothing of the cross and is about to slam the door shut when her husband rushes out, demanding an explanation. I explain that I mean no harm and am just a journalist working on a story, but he still doesn't trust me. He just keeps asking why I have come to this building where Orthodox Christians live. Orthodox Christians who have done nothing wrong. Photos on Facebook of such houses with crosses are always met with scorn, the man says.
He has a point.
"Have you totally lost your mind?" "Does this protect you from the Evil Eye?!" "Idiocy!" Those are just some of the least hostile comments under the photos I have seen on social media.
"Go away and leave us alone," says the man, angry not just with me but with all those commenters online. I leave, in the end only able to take pictures of the cross from a nearby building.
Most Georgians trust the church more than government institutions. A public opinion poll from 2022 found that 81 percent of those interviewed have "favorable" opinions of the Georgian Orthodox Church, while the government received only 46 percent support.
A survey from the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), found that most citizens (79 percent) think that the Georgian Orthodox Church is the foundation of Georgian identity and 83 percent say it has a very important role in their families.
Back at the big blue building, the boys love their wonky cross. They have plans for the rooftop, they say. A clothes dryer and a little gym. I ask the boys if they like living in this house.
"We don't like the place, but we love the house," they say. "And all our friends are here. Together."