Barbara Davis was behind the glass counter at Koch's Bakery earlier this week when the city government's sign inspector walked in. He wasn't there for eclairs. As Davis remembers it, their conversation went like this:
Mr. Inspector: That sign you painted outside has got to go.
Davis: It's not a sign. It's a mural. It's art.
Mr. Inspector: Lady, everybody knows you make doughnuts. That sign is an ad for your business. And you've got to paint over it.
Davis: No sir, I'm not. Not without a fight.
Mr. Inspector: I assure you, you will not win.
What a doughnut hole thing to do.
Davis, who's owned Koch's for 31 years, is the epitome of small-business devotion: She's labored, through the death of her husband and two sons while singlehandedly supporting her three grandchildren, to build the most beloved bakery in town.
Anchored to the Southside long before it became popular, Davis wanted for years to beautify the exterior wall -- it's street-corner ugly, and kids kept tagging it with graffiti -- of an adjacent storage shed at the corner of 20th and Broad streets.
After all, public art is hip. Several streets over, local artists have received tens of thousands of dollars in donations and grant money to paint murals. So Davis saved up $11,000 of her own money to do the same.
"I thought that was what they wanted people to do," she said. "To make the Southside look better."
The mural depicts several big doughnuts floating in midair. They're merry and entertaining, her drab shed wall replaced by pink and gorgeous interstellar frosting.
Instead of thanking her for cleaning up her streetscape, Mr. Inspector said that since she sells doughnuts, her doughnut mural is really an ad, violating city code because it contains "commercial messages."
So she could have painted a mural of hot dogs.
"That'd be OK," Davis said.
Monster trucks? Really scary clowns?
"Anything but what I sell," she said.
Crime to the left of us, jokers to the right, and we're stuck like jelly in the middle of this nonissue. Why would Mr. Inspector care so much?
"I've been trying to put myself in his place," said Joseph Giri, who painted the mural. "He's riding around, and all of a sudden, somebody's done something in his territory without asking. In his mind, he sees it as signage. It's an affront."
Giri -- whose work you can see at josephgiri.com -- painted murals for 18 years in Los Angeles before moving back to northern Alabama. This mural was partially inspired by the doughnut art of New York City's Kenny Scharf.
"Those doughnuts aren't there to encourage consumption," Giri said. "They're a celebration of the woman being there for 31 years, getting up every day at 3 a.m. and busting her hump creating employment and helping out many, many people."
This whole thing is based on selective enforcement and arbitrary interpretation. One block from Koch's is a Mexican restaurant with at least nine exterior murals. There's one of faded Aztec-looking warriors. Another of a tropical beach. Mexican-esque streetscapes. Plenty of words written in Spanish.
So a doughnut mural for a doughnut business is a crime, but Mexican murals for a Mexican restaurant aren't?
How about Woople, the online education and training company? Its North Shore building depicts six giant murals of famous inventors. Think those are sending "commercial messages" for the dentist next door?
What if Davis' mural had been of famous pastry chefs? Would that be a violation, too?
Don't forget the worst violator of all: Campaign signs.
City code 3-132 says that any political sign shorter than 36 inches must be at least five feet away from the road. Sign taller than that? They've got to be back at least 10 feet.
Go inspect that, Javert.
"I will fight this as long as I can afford it," Davis said.
Many people have stopped by Koch's in the last few days, voicing their support. Local artists started an online petition. Others have called with legal advice and donations. It's caused City Council to consider updating the sign ordinance.
Let's help. Visit Koch's between today and Tuesday afternoon, and buy an extra doughnut. I'll deliver them all to the City Council before Tuesday night's meeting, as a message of support for Koch's mural.
"I didn't hire a sign painter," Davis said. "I hired an artist."
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.